Mujib Mashal / The New York Times – 2017-02-07 00:48:25
Left-Behind Explosives Taking Deadlier Toll on Afghan Children, UN Says
Mujib Mashal / The New York Times
KABUL, Afghanistan (February 6, 2017) — Months after intense fighting between the Afghan government and the Taliban subsided on the outskirts of Kunduz, Hajji Habib Rahmani’s family decided to go ahead with a delayed wedding.
Amid the festivities, Abdul Basit, one of the children playing behind the house, picked up an unexploded shell, and it blew up. Basit, 14, and his brother Haroon, 8, were killed, and 12 other children ages 7 to 15 were wounded.
The shell had been “fired from a helicopter during the fighting, and it hadn’t exploded,” said Mr. Rahmani, an uncle of the two brothers.
On Monday, the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan reported that 2016 had been another year of record civilian casualties in the country, and it expressed particular concern about a 65 percent jump in the number of children killed or wounded by explosive remnants as fighting has spread to heavily populated civilian areas.
The report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or Unama, said overall civilian casualties had continued their steady increase in recent years. In 2016, 3,498 civilians were killed and 7,920 others wounded — a rise of 3 percent over the previous year, the report said.
“I am deeply saddened to report yet another year of increase in civilian casualties — another all-time-high figure for the number of civilian casualties,” Tadamichi Yamamoto, the United Nations special representative for Afghanistan and the head of Unama, said at a news conference on Monday in Kabul, the Afghan capital. “The killing and maiming of Afghan civilians is deeply harrowing and largely preventable.”
According to the report, Unama documented “record numbers of civilian casualties from ground engagements, suicide and complex attacks, and explosive remnants of war” in 2016. The report also said casualties caused by aerial operations were the highest since the mission started systematically tracking them in 2009 and had doubled compared with 2015.
Afghanistan is still having to clear what remains of the hundreds of thousands of decades-old mines and explosive remnants dating as far back as the 1979-89 war with the Soviet Union and the subsequent factional fighting, even as newer explosives take lives on a daily basis.
Just as the conflict is restricting the movements of demining crews, civilians are being killed and maimed by homemade roadside bombs planted by insurgents, as well as unexploded ordnance left behind by coalition forces around bases they abandoned.
And now, more children are dying not long after battles in their neighborhoods have ended, as none of the combatants bother to clear explosive remnants afterward as sought by international conventions.
About 61 percent of the civilian casualties are attributed to what Unama calls “antigovernment elements,” largely the Taliban. But civilian casualties caused by local affiliates of the Islamic State also increased tenfold compared with 2015, with 899 casualties claimed by Islamic State in 2016.
Pro-government forces caused 24 percent of the civilian casualties, the report said, significantly higher than in 2015.
The United Nations mission was especially concerned about an overall 24 percent rise in casualties involving children compared with 2015, with 3,512 such episodes in 2016 causing 923 deaths and leaving 2,589 wounded. More than half of the child casualties occurred during ground engagements.
Afghanistan has successfully carried out one of the world’s largest demining efforts over several decades, removing nearly two million items of explosive material, more than 700,000 antipersonnel mines and more than 29,000 antitank mines, according to the United Nations Mine Action Service.
The efforts have resulted in a 65 percent reduction in casualties caused by mines and explosive remnants since 2001.
But in recent years, as the American-led international coalition has closed down bases ahead of its withdrawal from the country, more casualties have been reported from ordnance exploding in areas that had been used as firing ranges and then abandoned by coalition forces.
From 2009 to 2015, the United Nations recorded 138 casualties resulting from explosive remnant accidents in or around facilities used by the international coalition, and it said that 75 percent of the victims were children.
A clearance operation to start getting rid of the explosives was introduced in 2014 to clear dozens of these sites.
The United Nations said many of last year’s casualties involving children and unexploded ordnance were caused by new explosive items left behind after recent fighting.
“My team tracks the location of every one of the detonations, and the trend we have documented was a direct correlation between casualties from exploded ordnance and areas where the heaviest ground fighting happened,” said Danielle Bell, the director of the human rights unit at Unama. “The majority of casualties resulted from new unexploded ordnance from the current conflict.”
The United Nations is urging the Afghan government to comply with international rules requiring it to clear explosives after a battle.
Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Kunduz Province, Afghanistan.
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